Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading the Extremes.

Nick Middleton is great at giving impressions of exactly how it feels to do a variety of extreme activities: taking part in a game of kokpar ( a sort of rugby on horse-back involving a dead goat), falconing with a golden eagle the size of a four year old child, sleeping outside on a heated rock in hugely sub-zero conditions, climbing the world's largest sand dunes and going up an incline at high altitude. These are just some of the extremes in his book Extremes Along the Silk Road (a book I've had in my TBR pile for about six years now). He takes three of the most inhospitable areas of the world (Mongolia, Tibet and Kazakhstan (near the Aral Sea) which just happen to lie alongside the Silk Road) and describes how it is to exist there. It makes interesting reading.

As I've gone along I found out so many interesting facts I have listed them below in their three sections, and shall be adding to these as I read today.

Mongolian Facts.

Bactrian camels are more comfortable to ride than Dromedary ones as the riders fits between the humps rather than on top of one.

To enter a ger (transportable Mongolian house) you must not step on the threshold. It is then customary to kneel on the left hand side.

Fast Mongolian couriers (the service was known as a yam) used to wrap themselves tightly in silk to prevent their internal organs shaking, which might otherwise result in death. They could not eat en route and were able to cover two thousand kilometres with only short intervals for rest.

The karez are underground water channels supplying Uigher oases in the Takla Makan and Gobi deserts. They are fed from the bottom of the slopes of mountains and pass down to the plains by gravity. They date from the seventh century BC and originate in Persia, where they are known as qanat.

The Loess Plateau in China is due to thousands of centuries' worth of sand blown across from the desert. It presumably accounts for the haze in the cities such as Peking.

Tibetan Facts.

Acute Mountain Sickness can be fatal as it can cause brain swelling (HACE) and pulmonary oedema (HAPE). There seems to be no pattern in who is predisposed to either. The only solution is to be aware of symptoms and reduce altitude if affected.

The Badain Jaran region of the Gobi desert consists of huge sand dunes and lakes.

A symptom of Altitude sickness is waking up feeling a panicky shortness of breath.

The traditonal Tibetan (drokba) nomadic greeting is sticking out the tongue (to show it is not green - which is the sign of the devil).

The kora is a pilgrimage around a certain spot e.g. Mount Kailash. There is an inner kora (spiritual) and an outer kora (physical). The inner Kora is achieved through meditation , spinning wheels, chanting mantra, or prostrating. It is usually done in a clockwise direction, sometimes many times.

Aral Sea Basin Facts.

The western part of the Silk Road - from Persia to India - developed earlier than the eastern part. This is thought to be due to the rise of the Achaemenid empire in Persia which controlled large parts of the middle east 500BC, which in turn may have been due to the easy terrain.

It was subsequently taken over by Alexander the Great. By the third century BC this part of the silk road had become a meeting place for Greek, Persian and Indian ideas. Only a hundred years later would Zhang Qian, an envoy of the emperor of China, would set out from the east and become the 'Father of the Silk Road'. He discovered the 'Heavenly Horses' in what is now Uzbekistan - and the edge of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.

The area is dominated by the Aral Sea. But since Krushchev's irrigation schemes in the 1960s it has lost four-fifths of its volume. Its remaining waters are twice as salty as any ocean.

The Golden Man of Almaty (a town in Kazakhstan , the neighbour of Uzbekistan) is preserved in the museum. All that is left is his golden armour. He was a Scythian living in the 4th or 5th century BC. They were supposed to be illiterate nomads and Pliny thought they were cannibals.

According to Herodotus in 514BC Darius, the king of the Persians tried to invade Scythia, but the Scythians just ran away saying they had nothing to defend, and the Persians could see they had a point: nomads take their civilisation with them. Nick Middleton says the Scythians have left the world a lasting legacy as described by Herodotus - a curious garment covering the bottom part of the body, divided into sections to cover each leg separately. In other words a pair of trousers (or pants).

At the battle of Talas in AD 751 the soldiers of the Tang dynasty were defeated by the Arabs. Chinese prisoners of war knew the secret of paper-making and were taken to Samarkand and ordered to start making it. It was orinigally invented by a Chinese court eunuch called Cai Lun in AD 105.

In AD 1219, the leader of a town called Otrar, Inalchik, brought on the wrath of Genghis Khan by murdering his merchant envoys. In retaliation Genghis Khan sent in his troops, and when they captured Inalchik they put him to death by pouring moulten silver in his ears and eyes. The Mongols then went on a rampage that reached the gates of Vienna.

The shrinkage of the Aral Sea has been cataclysmic. Fish and small organisms have died out. Aeras of sea bed left exposed have become whipped up by the wind to produce dust storms. These have stunted plant growth. The irrigation was poorly managed and as a result overuse of agrochemicals has polluted the drinking water and caused severe health problems.

The book ended with an exciting expedition to Rebirth Island; this was an isolated island in the Aral Sea where the Russians conducted biochemical warfare research. Accompanying Nick Middleton was a man called Dave who was from Porton Down and an anthrax specialist. It is possible that weapons grade anthrax spores may still survive there, so the two men took no chances and went equipped with protective clothing and, in the laboratories that still stood in the Aralsk-7 base, exchanged gas masks for respirators. It sounds like it was an eerie experience.

It is an unexpectedly memorable book. The descriptions are vivid and I've learnt a lot about this area of the world. However, I think there is one small section that I think will remain with me for longer still. It is an anecdote, from Dave the germ warfare expert. Before the cold war ended, Dave worked as an intelligence officer in East Berlin.
'On several occasions he had spent lengthy periods crawling around the sewers beneath the Stasi buildings in East Berlin looking for secret documents....Since toilet paper was often hard to get hold of, even in East Germany's secret service, Stasi employees frequently used top-secret memos to wipe their bottoms.'

And to think that I thought the life of a spy was all glamour.


Anonymous marly youmans said...

The green tongue... very interesting. Like a foliate head--and we have really only theories about western foliate heads.

And the silk wrappings! That's a jouncy ride...

(And hey--thanks! Shall write you after company leaves.)

Mon Jun 20, 12:34:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, Marly, I liked the green tongue bit. Always a good idea to make sure you're not talking to the devil.

Mon Jun 20, 07:42:00 am  
Blogger lucychili said...

what mayhem
thank you for the review

Mon Jun 20, 10:45:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Glad you liked it Lucychili, thank you for visiting.

Mon Jun 20, 11:19:00 am  
Blogger Marly Youmans said...

I wonder if they have green lollipops.

Tue Jun 21, 02:16:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Heh. Yes, probably poisonous serpent flavour.

Tue Jun 21, 02:45:00 pm  

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